Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s mellifluous voice has been crooning the secret life of food into our ears for 12 years now; she’s the host and co-creator of American Public Media’s wide-ranging food program, “The Splendid Table.” Her latest book, The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, mixes richly flavored, quickly prepared recipes with food history, anthropology, tips, and other food ephemera.
Do you have a memory of what ignited your passion for food?
So many! I was raised in an Italian family. And food was primary; food was part of who we were. And we didn’t eat like everyone else, and at times that was a source of great embarrassment.
I desperately wanted to be able to have Wonder Bread and chicken pot pie and frozen vegetables. And I’d go to my friend’s houses and they had all these things that I was just not allowed to eat. I couldn’t have any white flour or white sugar. Which meant no soda, no cake. White bread took on an aura of being the holy grail for me.
My mother’s side of the family is Tuscan and my father’s side of the family is Venetian, and for health reasons as well as for traditional reasons, every night we had four or five fresh vegetables and a big salad, plus some kind of meat or poultry or fish or whatever. I think that kind of background, it just gradually sinks in.
Your new book, How to Eat Supper, is a mixture of history, food culture, and anthropology, along with recipes. How did you pull together so many different elements?
It was really the first 12 years of the show. So our biggest problem was what to eliminate. We had more material than we could ever fit between those two covers. And of course, keeping balance. Sally [Swift, Kasper’s co-writer and producer] and I both love science, we love history, and we love the sideways looks at food, the sort of oddball takes. That book could have been all science; it could have been all history. But you couldn’t miss the “Museum of Burnt Food” or “Crying While Eating.”
What side of food journalism appeals to you these days? The cultural-historian side?
Absolutely. And also the political side. It’s always been strange to me that the news side and the business side of the newspaper are separated from the food section. Because they’re not! Very definitely not. And now there is so much concern now over where our food is coming from and how it’s raised.
We’re all beginning to wonder what’s behind how this is done. Where is the governance? Why does the system work this way? In fact, what is the system? I think this is a really good thing. We’ve been rather blithe in this country, don’t you think? We have more than we can ever use. We eat more than we need. We expect more on our plates. And we supposedly spend less for food as a percentage of income than any other country in the world.
I get a little tired of people slapping our hands about that, because that’s just the way it is. It’s where we’ve evolved to. But we’re now evolving in some very interesting directions.
Do you feel hopeful that the rest of the country is moving toward a more political ethos around food?
I am just over the moon about the fact that this is now mainstream. But one of my main concerns is that it’s still the privilege of the privileged. And today, with what’s happening with the economy, the cost of fuel, the cost of grain, more and more I think we’re going to be seeing a separation between those who have options and choices and those who don’t.
For me, with what little bit of extra money there is, I can justify spending it on food because I work in food. But it’s also a political act for me. I’m not saying that every single thing in my home and every forkful of food I put in my mouth is a pure as the driven snow, but I figure an extra five bucks — which I can afford at this point — is a small way that I say, “This is what I believe in. This is where I choose to put my money and my support.” But so many people don’t have that option.
Organics are beginning to appear in low-priced stores like Wal-Mart.
I get worried about that, too. If Wal-Mart starts shipping in from Australia . . . I’m not saying that this isn’t a good thing. There’s always the double-edged sword. But my real concern about large-scale industries getting into organics is that the essence of what the organic movement was about was sustainable ways for small- and medium-scale agriculture to flourish. And flourish sensibly.
Since World War II in this country, we’ve had a federal agricultural policy that has started from the premise that bigger is better: it’s more economical, makes more sense, feeds more people. We’ve never tried to work out how we feed a nation and do it at a reasonable cost by saying, “How do we have sustainable agriculture that is about crop rotation and modest-scale farms and new techniques that keep strengthening the soil and helping the environment?” We’ve never started with that premise.
I mean, we still supply backing to the person who’s growing commodity crops. We don’t supply any kind of support to the farmer who’s got the truck farm who’s growing the tomatoes and the peaches and the fava beans and the green beans and who has alfalfa in the fields for a year as he rotates through. I mean, I’m asking here only for a revolution, you know. That’s all.
We talk with people doing influential, important, or just plain unusual work in food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more
Good on everything